In an era where AFL clubs will try anything to get an edge, the great untapped resource is the mind.
EVERY week the football-mad world discusses the ins and outs and subtle nuances of the game. Who was in form, slightly down on form, which team had the best kicking efficiency, best goal-kicking accuracy, who turned the ball over. Each and every aspect of the game is dissected.
Each week coaches will stare at all the vital statistics, hoping to make sense of them. What worked, what didn’t. Why did this happen, why did that happen? Why didn’t the team execute X, Y and Z on match day, when the players practised it all week? Missed set shots, incorrect positions, missed tackles . . . the list goes on.
The coaches, medical staff, fitness team and players all put in an enormous amount of work and preparation ahead of each game. So why doesn’t it all pan out as expected on game day?
That is the $1 million question coaches, players, boards, administrators and supporters ask when the final siren signals a loss.
Discount games where a team has key injuries, or those where the players have given 100 per cent but were simply outclassed. Examine the games that leave a coach shaking his head, leave players dazed, where no one knows what went wrong and you come away thinking you should have won.
They are the days that prove the saying: a game is won above the shoulders.
Collingwood forward Travis Cloke spoke this week about how his goalkicking accuracy has improved in 2011. He attributed it to practising his set shots while listening to recorded crowd noise through earphones at training. It is working.
Collingwood’s coaching staff should be commended for being aware of the issue and realising that sometimes it actually has nothing to do with practice hours or fitness levels. Sometimes a flaw can be traced to what is happening between a player’s ears and, unless you address that, the problem may never correct itself.
Sydney’s loss to Richmond two weeks ago led former captain Brett Kirk to publicly state the Swans needed more mental focus.
Kirky was one of about 25 Swans footballers who learned to meditate and thus focus his thoughts. He was well known for his ability to get the best out of his game, often against players who were deemed more skilful. His incredible mental strength was a big part of the amazing courage and tenacity he showed on the field.
Most professional athletes are superstitious. Some have the same weekly routine, and if you disrupt it you risk jeopardising their focus, especially on game day.
As a player I used to eat eight pieces of vegemite toast before every game. I remember reading that basketball great Michael Jordan played every game for the Chicago Bulls with the same pair of North Carolina (his college alma mater) shorts underneath his uniform.
Swans players sit in the same seat every week on the team bus and in the same spot at team meetings. Geelong’s Harry Taylor is superstitious about wearing zinc cream. Collingwood’s Harry O’Brien always gives teammate Dale Thomas a pat on the back and runs on to the field after him.
There are countless stories like this in every locker room around the globe.
What is hard for a coach at times, though, is to be aware of everything going on in a player’s life. It is impossible.
Footballers go through the same problems as other 18 to 32-year-old males.
You cannot know what each player is dealing with for 52 weeks of the year.
Yet emotional responses to daily issues can significantly affect a footballer’s performance. If he is not mentally focused, is slightly distracted, he won’t play at his peak.
Regardless of what issue is affecting the player, the fans and media will still expect anyone who runs on to the ground to perform at an optimum level. Unaware that there may be trying circumstances off the field.
I learned meditation back in 1999 and I firmly believe it helped me perform better as a coach and allowed me to navigate the stressful times with a bit more ease.
Athletes can benefit physically, mentally and emotionally from meditation.
Mental clarity is one of the greatest benefits and it allows you to compete at a much higher level. You feel less stressed and fatigued and have a sense of wellbeing.
Instead of being worn down by the length and pressure of the AFL season, you have a scientifically proven technique that helps dissolve stress and fatigue.
The role of the part-time sports psychologist is becoming more and more prevalent at all AFL clubs. However, is there another level we need to look at?
The next frontier to be conquered in sport is the mental side of the game and there are tools out there to help, whether they be meditation, visualisation, or relaxation techniques.
With the amount of money football departments now spend on state-of-the-art facilities, technology for data collection, dietitians, strength and conditioning coaches, fitness advisers, sports psychologists, physios and medical teams, it will be interesting to see which club becomes the first to employ a full-time mind coach. Get that right and who knows what type of results will follow?
One of the most famous soccer clubs in the world, AC Milan, has had great success using what it labels its secret weapon: a mind room.
There is a well-worn view in football that the one-percenters can prove the difference.
The winner may just be the club that recognises and acts on the fact the mental side plays an enormous role in every game.
Paul Roos appears on Fox Footy’s On The Couch at 8.30pm Monday